Occupying Our Lives

You can't help but see stories about Occupy Wall Street and the inevitable spread into other major cities including Philadelphia. I got to wondering about the word "occupy" or, more to the point, what it means to "to occupy."

Dictionary.com lists the meanings of occupy as:

1. to take or fill up
2. to engage or employ the mind, energy, or attention of
3. to be resident or tenant of; dwell in
4. to take possession and control of
5. to hold

It became an interesting proposition; this idea of occupying. I began to think about whether we really occupied our own personal lives with our "mind, energy or attention." If we did actually "take possession or control of." Or, if those lives were, in fact, occupying us.

When I speak to people who have raised families, retired from jobs or decided on a later-in-life career change I am always amazed at how many times they refer to being at a place of lessened responsibility which enables them to "do what they have always wanted to do."  So I was thinking the other day as I watched protesters take to parks and streets in various cities and refusing to go until they are satisfied: why we don't have the same tenacity to hold out for the creative or out of the ordinary thing we always wanted to do in our personal lives?

There are so many women who, after menopause, begin taking classes in drawing, writing, pottery and various other creative activities and say they have discovered a joy within themselves they never knew existed. Women like Belva Plain who published her first book at 59 years old.   Randy Susan Meyers writes a lovely tribute to Plain on her blog Word Love: A Mentor Never Met: When Writers Provide Comfort.

Reading Randy's blog reminded me of my own "Mentor Never Met" Ellen Gilchrist who published her first novel at 46. I was given her book The Anna Papers as a Christmas present one year because someone saw me huddled somewhere in between the lines. These were not easy, safe books with happy endings. These books flew off the page for me because the women where three and sometimes four and five dimensional characters that seemed more like the people in my life than the women in the books of Jane Austin or The Bronte' sisters.

So, I got to thinking about why women sometimes seem to bloom later in life and if the road we climb to get to the creative center of our lives is necessary; especially as a writer. I know when I was a single parent finishing school was last on the list of importance, or so it seemed. Overburdened with bills and raising a child without any child support, it was easy to think the logical step was to quit school, get a job and pay the bills. But the piece of the puzzle I was missing was the fact that finishing my degree would have increased my viability in a job market and would have lead to better paying jobs instead of working at jobs where, if I was lucky, there was a two or three percent cost-of-living raise which never matched my increased cost of living as my daughter grew. I did qualify for student loans and some Pell Grants but they weren't enough for rent, food and the cost of raising a child. Mostly it seemed that school just increased my debt and exhausted my already frayed emotions.

The responsibility of raising a child on my own and being solely financially responsible for everything, not to mention: cleaning, laundry, cooking, homework patrol, best friend, nurse, psychologist and complete mom extraordinaire (which I failed at miserably) being a full time student on top of it all was more than I could juggle. And although I knew some amazing women who could manage all of that well; I was not one of them.  So I did what seemed like the logical thing and quit school to get a night job with a shift differential of an extra $.50 an hour because sometimes the differential meant the difference between paying bills and buying food rather than choosing between the two.

At one point I worked seven days a week at three different jobs and had finally dug myself out of a deep financial hole and had sufficient money to pay bills, buy food, make car payments and go to an occasional movie or restaurant as a treat. But I was working simply to work; that is, working to meet financial obligations and keep a roof over our heads. I was not in any way occupying my own life. During that whole portion of my life I was trying to find a way back to school; trying to find a way to do what I knew would make me happy. I was depressed, angry, tired of taking crap from abusive bosses that knew I had no choice but to stay and take anything they threw at me because I risked eviction if I lost my job. The only thing I occupied was a spot at a job in which I was easily replaceable with the threat of homelessness hanging over my head and a mantra ringing in my head that I would never be happy in this kind of life.

To put it another way: all the external things in my life occupied me.

Some of these jobs were in poor conditions; some of them were in really nice office buildings and through the years I did move up the chain and  into an executive assistant position where the money as well as the benefits where good and I had job security because I was good at what I did. Very good in fact. But I was still at the mercy of the people I worked for and stuck in a cubicle for eight or so hours a day and still looking for the opportunity to return to school.

When I think of the old adage "Do what you love; love what you do" to me, it's more than a silly placating cliche' that is hung around corporate offices like dystopian suggestions that if read often enough lull you into feeling okay about what you do for them. But, if you don't love what you do, no matter what the benefits might be, you will be unhappy or, at the very least, unfulfilled.

So, to me, the first part of the adage is what we should cling to: it's the "do what you love" that should always precede the idea of loving what you do. They go hand in hand; the former leading to the latter. It is imperative to do the thing you love first. Otherwise you will not occupy your life. Your life will occupy you.

3 comments:

Renee said...

Joan, I returned to school when my child was still an infant. I can say with all honesty if I had not had help I would have never have made it. Sometimes returning to school isn't in the cards, if you alone are soley responsible for your children. You made a temendous sacrifice. One that your children will surely appreciate.

clairemca said...

When we don't do what we love, we allow others (employers) to occupy our lives, our thoughts and stifle our creative spirit.

I didn't realise this until one year I took a year out to study and worked part time in the evenings, suddenly I couldn't stop the creative ideas and thoughts and words and stories pouring out of me and once I had experienced this, I knew I had to guard this aspect of myself and not let a job suck up all that energy again.

I support my family financially, but will never again fill my time to the extent that there isn't time for creative expression, financially it can be difficult, but spiritually it is uplifting and I have never been happier.

Marilyn Bousquin said...

Hi, Joan. Excellent article. One thing I have noticed about women who write about real life is that we write from an impulse to discover who we are and to become conscious as we create art from our lived experiences as women. It seems to me that occupying our own lives by writing our truths is an act of consciousness and self-awareness. And certainly there can be no greater gift to the world (and to our children!) than that. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to occupy my thoughts about women and writing and living our true lives! Best, Marilyn